Jefferson Health: A Conversation With Dr. Wendy Ross
Simple language with illustrations can inform and reassure those on the spectrum.
Like everyone else, individuals with autism need to understand the Coronavirus (COVID–19) pandemic, ways to prevent getting and spreading the disease, and tactics to cope emotionally during this frightening time. But oftentimes, the information provided to the public needs to be more explicit for those on the autism spectrum.
Visual guides, which combine easy-to-follow language in large type with photographs and illustrations can help make information about medicine, government, travel, sports and other basic and vital aspects of life more accessible to those with autism, according to Dr. Wendy Ross, a specialist in developmental-behavioral pediatrics and Director of Jefferson Health’s Center for Autism and Neurodiversity. That’s why the center has prepared a list of strategies and a new visual guide about COVID-19 for those with autism.
Click here to view and download the guide.
The Autism “Spectrum”
“Autism is a spectrum because everyone with autism has difficulties at some level with communication, behaviors and social skills, but how those difficulties impact them can be hugely different,” says Dr. Ross. “For example, you might have somebody on the spectrum who can do things academically on a cognitive IQ level that are amazing, but still struggles with basic social interactions. You can also have somebody with autism who has no verbal language and sits there rocking back and forth and not making any eye contact.”
Coping Physically and Psychologically
Not surprisingly, part of Jefferson’s COVID-19 visual guide, or story, for autistic individuals is about ways to stop the virus from spreading, including staying apart from people, washing hands, keeping things clean and wearing masks. But much of it is about coping with stress.
“Because they’re so bound by structure and schedules, those on the autism spectrum are going to need more support,” explains Dr. Ross. “So we are providing them with strategies to help them identify and cope with their feelings and the feelings of those around them. Those on the spectrum are going to be especially vulnerable to some of those changes that COVID-19 is causing to their daily way of life, so we felt the need to address those changes as much as the ways of not spreading the infection.
“People on the spectrum are likely to get more upset than others when their schedules are changed. So one of the coping strategies we recommend is making a new routine. And then, use such strategies to reduce stress as sharing feelings with someone at home, doing mindfulness meditation, taking deep breaths and exercising, and staying busy with activities online – such as virtual museum tours – and projects that can be done around the house, such as hobbies.”
Beyond what’s in the visual guide, Dr. Ross also recommends “old-school” family-time activities that predate contemporary technology.
“Board games are especially helpful for those on the spectrum because you have to hone some of the skills that don’t always come naturally for those with autism – for example, turn-taking and strategizing. That kind of perspective-taking is good for those on the spectrum to practice.”
In Conclusion, Inclusion
On April 2, which was Autism Awareness Day, CNN debuted a short video on Facebook of Dr. Ross speaking about the increased challenges and struggles that those with autism are having during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Ross was named a CNN Hero in 2014 in recognition of her “inclusion work” educating airline and airport personnel about autism and the special needs of autistic travelers.
Such efforts are a vital part of the mission of the Jefferson Center of Autism and Neurodiversity. For example, once the current pandemic subsides, the center will resume programs to educate personnel at Philadelphia City Hall, the game-day staff of Philadelphia sports teams, who are hosting autistic attendees at their home games, and all personnel at Jefferson.
“Just as we’re preparing those on the spectrum for the world, we’re also preparing the world for them,” concludes Dr. Ross. “It’s important that everyone have an understanding of autism. So we provide resources for those on the spectrum, but we’re equally vested in providing resources for those who aren’t.”